Two Rivers Of Fatherhood

Photo: Kathy Frederick Louv, Nick Raven, Matthew Louv, Isabel Raven, Jason Louv

People like to talk about traditional fatherhood. Which tradition?

I first met Nick Raven, my farmer/wood­worker/trout-fisher friend, many years ago in a little town in Eastern New Mexico. My wife, Kathy, a nurse practitioner, was volunteering at a hospital there. One afternoon he came to the hospital with an appendix that was about to burst. Kathy went into action. Nick has since claimed that Kathy saved his life. She always demurs.

Bearded, tough, blunt, he is the most self-reliant person I’ve ever known. It was late August. Nick had removed a wall from his family’s ancient, two-room adobe house in order to build a bedroom for his and his wife Isabel’s two children. Despite his preternatural physical strength, the operation meant it would be unlikely that Nick would be able to finish the extension before winter set in.

So with nothing better to do (other than write, which I try to avoid), I spent the next two weeks helping Nick make adobe bricks. The old fashioned way. In a mud pit, with hay, hoes, shovels and a wheelbarrow.

We would work a few hours in the searing heat, then sit under an oak tree and eat chile stew (which would make us sweat and, consequently, cool us down). And we would argue. Nick had some political views that, at the time, might have been considered radical. Today, not so much. But we both liked to argue politics. And religion. Then we would finish our chile, and head back for more adobe-making. He finished the new room in time.

Vitamin N CoverDuring the following summer, Nick taught me to fly fish for trout. We have remained friends ever since.

* * *

Years later, sitting on the bank of the Cimarron, we debated politics again. Hotly. Then we fished and, after a while, we went back to the bank and debated politics some more. And then fished some more.

Slowly, like the deeper current meandering by, our conversation turned to fatherhood. Our kids were still small then. We talked about them not in the oblique way that men often do, but directly.

Nick and I are different in our fathering. He is an undoubting 19th-century father. I am a doubting 20th-century dad. He believes, for example, in corporal punishment. I do not. We talked about this on the river.

“I figure discipline is like the arms race,” I said, as I tied on a sinking nymph. The spring water was high and murky, and not good for dry flies. Nick, being Calvinistic, tied on a floating caddis. I shoved my glasses up on my forehead so that I could see the fly. The last time Nick and I fished, I did not have this problem.

“If your child believes that a time-out is the ultimate punishment,” I continued, “he will generally push and test until he reaches that limit. But once you’ve spanked a child, that becomes the ultimate punishment and you will have to use that punishment from then on.”

“Well, that makes some sense,” he said.

* * *

Nick was just upstream, working a pool. He was wearing torn and stained jeans and very old tennis shoes. I was wearing my new neoprene waders that protect me from the painfully cold mountain water. This is another way we are different. Nick has led a more spartan life, to say the least.

He did not attempt to defend spanking, just as I did not attempt to defend time-outs. Some child-rearing experts do not like spanking or time-outs.

“What about the schools in California?” Nick asked. “Don’t the teachers use corporal punishment?”

“No. I think it’s against the law.”

“You’re kidding. How do the teachers keep control?”

This is where our river branches: I believe that fish should be caught and released; Nick believes they should be caught and eaten, and anything short of that is torture to the fish. I believe that the world is harsh and violent enough as it is, and I do not have to impose any more of that on my children. In fact, part of my job as a parent is to protect my sons, as long as I can, from the brutality of the world. He believes that violence is inevitable, that suffering is redemptive, and that a father must teach his children about the harshness of life by exposing them to that harshness.

When Nick’s children were small and he and his family still lived on their farm down a dirt road in a valley of adobes and cottonwoods and chiles, his daughter came home one day to find her favorite goat (not a pet, really, but one that followed her around) skinned, gutted, and strung up in the barn. This was a time when Nick’s family was short on shoes, and the meat they ate was meat that Nick butchered or shot with his gun. It was a terrible moment for his daughter.

* * *

He insists he has no regrets, but he still talks about it. “She was hurt, but she knew from that moment on, and will for the rest of her life, where the meat that she eats comes from, and that meat is not born plastic-wrapped.” This is not the kind of experience I would have wanted for my children, but I have had a different life.

Nick is among the hardest workers and thinkers I have known. He believes deeply in the value of using his hands to grow and make what his family needs. He pores over the classics: Plato and Aristotle and Kierkegaard and, of course, the Bible. He passed his fierce love of learning on to his children.

Early on, the evidence was in: His children are wonderful people, self-confident, self-disciplined, independent, and not afraid of anyone. However differently Nick and I did our early fathering, I admire how he and his strong and nurturing wife, Isabel, have succeeded in this life.

And, of course, I am proud of my own sons, two of the best men I know.

Nick and I moved down the stream. As he fished he talked with deep love and admiration for his children, not only as his progeny but as people. Here is where the branches of our river come together again and form a long, smooth pool, where the trout grow fat and strong and surface gently, making rings in the darkening water.

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